HENRY MILLER – STATELESS GURU
The following essay on Henry Miller dates from a 1962 non-fiction book commissioned by Victor Gollancz, The Shrinking Island. Like several of the thirty or so publishers who turned down my teenage novel The Summer Ghosts between 1959 and 1962 – Gollancz praised the writing effusively, while also wanting to stake some sort of claim on my future fiction. I was 22 and had only just graduated, so by then even the meagre advance Gollancz offered (£150, in two £75 instalments) for a book I’d never have considered writing, proved a modest encouragement, if not distraction, from work on a second novel.
Fortunately a newer publisher, Anthony Blond, was keen to publish The Summer Ghosts and other ‘controversial’ authors, among them Jean Genet. My first novel with its ‘outspoken’ themes, breakdown and madness, sex, abortion and suicide, was narrated sometimes in language previously deemed unprintable. So Blond on legal advice dreamed up a sort of subscribers’ club, The Minority Book Society, with a view to challenging or bypassing the strict morality and censorship of the mealy-mouthed late 1950s and pre-Chatterley Trial days. As it happened, my novel still kept being cautiously delayed until well after the D.H. Lawrence court-case, finally appearing only late in 1964 when, under Blond’s own relatively new imprint, it became an immediate bestseller. Hence the context of the following youthful piece with its emphasis on breaking down barriers of censorship and hypocrisy.
“There is only one great adventure and that is inward towards the self, and for that, time nor space nor even deeds matter” wrote Miller in Tropic of Capricorn. His work ought to be widely available in England today [i.e. 1961]. We inhabit a shrinking island whose status as a world power diminishes daily. With European frontiers and social and moral barriers disintegrating around us, we must come to terms with ourselves and each other. Miller has shown that the search for the true self involves neither false aggrandisement, evasion, nor further diminution of concern for one’s fellows, but is a quest that engenders joy, spiritual increase and understanding. The message is not new, it is not easy; it’s not accepted by the majority. Steinbeck wins the Nobel Prize, but in California where Miller now lives there was a recent court case over Tropic of Cancer. And another in Chicago. Meanwhile in Miller’s native Brooklyn, when he failed to answer charges that Tropic of Cancer (published in France, 1934) was obscene, a warrant for the author’s arrest was issued. Such is America’s homage to her greatest living author; in England, with only half a dozen of his books permitted or in print, and scant critical attention, it can’t be said that we lavish honours upon him either.
To me the impact of reading his extraordinary first book was immediate: I felt Miller had liberated the novel in terms of style, content and intention. I reread Tropic of Cancer recently: I’d forgotten how good it was. That frantic, defiant humour even in the brutal, most basic struggle for survival; the short sentences interspersed with long unravelling ones, gathering momentum in a spate of physical imagery, sights and smells, and especially that gnawing hunger and intensity which resolve themselves in the lyrical ending with its mystical acceptance, its sense of release. Miller in The Books In My Life wrote of Jean Giono: “In their first ‘successful’ work some authors give such a full image of themselves that no matter what they say later this image endures, dominates, and often obliterates all succeeding ones.” This has happened to Miller: the fixed attitude was Orwell’s, whose critical approval lessened after Cancer, and with Miller that proved particularly unfortunate, since his work deserves and demands to be read in its totality. There are so many different sides to the man, as a reading of The Happy Rock, a book about Miller by twenty-five contributors makes evident. And if we accept Schopenhauer’s affirmation that “genius may be defined as an eminently clear consciousness of things in general, and therefore, also of that which is opposed to them, namely one’s own self”, then Miller the autodidact is a genius of sorts.
How can one explain the strong reactions he arouses in people, the continual controversy about his literary merit? This last phrase he would detest: Miller more than any contemporary writer has tried to do away with Literature as distinct from life (see Black Spring: “What is not in the open street is false derived, that is to say literature”), and this may account for his enormous appeal to so many different readers of every nationality, class, age and creed. The liberation of the self that he urges can and should be achieved by everyone, and the democratic gusto with which he describes his spiritual odyssey communicates with humour the difficult reality of life itself. Wordsworth declared that it was “a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself” and Miller has taken up and justified the statement in practice. “A quoi bon me documenter/Je m’abandonne/Aux sursauts de ma mémoire” wrote one of Miller’s favourite writers, Blaise Cendrars, and this is Miller’s own method, wordy and discursive, gaining impetus paragraph by paragraph. “By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself: two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too, – and at the same time.” Not an explanation by Miller himself, but by Laurence Sterne. Miller’s style, like Sterne’s, is conversational, all-inclusive.
I don’t believe his writing is in any way obscene, because its function is to include, to reveal a personality devoid of moralising. As the Zen poem puts it:
“If you want to get the plain truth,
Thus sex in Miller’s books is harsh, comical, tender or frankly raw: he is a less squeamish, truer and more natural writer on the subject than the D.H. Lawrence he admires. Miller’s work, as the American critic Karl Shapiro has written, is “no aphrodisiac at all because religious or so-called moral tension does not exist for him. When one of Miller’s characters lusts, he lusts out loud, and then proceeds to the business at hand.” Simple acceptance. Acceptance and celebration – two key words in Miller’s books. “Without shame the man I like knows and avows the deliciousness of his sex,/Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers” wrote Whitman, and if Miller is as Orwell described him, “a sort of Whitman among the corpses”, he recognises the charnel-house of our human existence, which most of us refuse, or don’t dare, to do. As Miller states in The World Of Sex, the ‘metaphysical’ passages and the ‘sexual’ ones cannot be read separately, for they are one and the same: the work is the man.
Some over-simplifying critics maintain that Miller glorifies irresponsible ‘Bohemianism’, but Miller would certainly agree with Lawrence’s hatred of money and soul-destroying routine jobs: “You’ve got to smash money and this beastly possessive spirit. I get more revolutionary every minute, but for life’s sake. The dead materialism of Marx socialism and Soviets seem to me no better than what we’ve got. What we want is life and trust; men trusting men and making living a free thing, not a thing to be earned. But if men trusted men, we would soon have a new world and send this one to the devil.” The nine-to-fiver, the bourgeois salesman, trapped within a job he doesn’t believe in, doing it only for the money and security, is a kind of schizophrenic. Life should not be built on a lie, and in opposing all such compromises, Miller (who wrote a whole book about Lawrence) preferred the ‘Bohemian’ alternative, because he thus had, in his own words, “the privilege to starve”. Even when most vulnerable, starving or begging, you are yourself, a whole person, your own failure, if you like. Miller realises both extremes are ugly, but also that the latter route is self-preservative, self-respecting. Miller’s books then are unromantic holocausts of love and hunger, pessimistic or optimistic as the mood takes him, but always he emerges as the idealistic survivor. Listening to the double album he made in conversation with Ben Grauer of Riverside Records, one appreciates the fact that the present-tense immediacy, the continuing vital sincerity of Miller’s books is all part of the man. Miller has no pretensions, yet he knows with Nietzsche that “one must pay dearly for immortality: one has to die several times while still alive”, and he is the chronicler of these deaths and spiritual rebirths.
“The goal” D.H. Lawrence wrote in a passage on childrens’ education, “is not ideal. The aim is not mental consciousness. We want effectual human beings, not conscious ones. The final aim is not to know, but to be. There never was a more risky motto than that: Know thyself. You’ve got to know yourself as far as possible. But not just for the sake of knowing. You’ve got to know yourself so that you can at least be yourself. ‘Be yourself’ is the last motto.” And Miller wants to restore us to that child’s vision of wonder that his paintings in their colourful simplicity express – the naïf’s originality of that tender fable The Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder.
Miller himself has always possessed this vision: he is an amateur, a primitive, and that’s his greatness. William Carlos Williams closes his poem To The Dean:
“…I think we should
And Miller is indeed a good influence, refreshing as the food and
drink he has so enthusiastically celebrated – both as inspiration
and intoxicant. But Miller cautioned in a
Paris Review interview
that the author as author is nothing: “Does he know his own work as
well as he imagines? I rather think not. I rather think he’s like a
medium who, when he comes out of his trance, is amazed at what he’s
said and done.” The work appears because it
has to, it makes its own form, and as he says in
Art And Outrage: “What I
can never write enough about are the ‘influences’ – both men,
haphazard meetings, books, places. Places have affected me as much
or more than people, I think.”
Yet locations and chronology seem meaningless beside those of the spirit. Miller is a proletarian rover and a kind of Dionysian phoenix: “Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems, the will to live rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility even in the very sacrifice of its highest types – that is what I call Dionysian. That is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge – Aristotle understood it that way – but in order to be oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity – that joy which excludes even joy in destroying.” (Nietzsche: Twilight Of The Idols) Miller understood that “… an autobiography can only survive in ashes,/ persistence is extinction’ (Montale: Piccolo Testamento, tr. Robert Lowell), but he nonetheless proclaims the compensations: every crucifixion is, in a sense Rosy, like the title of his huge late trilogy.
Intermittently I can appreciate, as a fellow-Capricornian, the obstinacy and deep despair of some of his writings. As a Greek I consider The Colossus Of Maroussi one of his masterworks. Miller holds that “the Colossus was written from some other level of my being. What I like about it is that it’s a joyous book. It expresses joy, it gives joy.” True enough, for although idealised, The Colossus Of Maroussi has immense enthusiasm, verve; it’s the one book that ever made me want to hasten back to Greece. And as a writer trying to find his own voice I value Miller’s achievement – not because I think it can or should be imitated, but because his writing should be read and accepted as the bold, massive experiment, the uneven, various and above all enjoyable body of work it is.
I’ve neither the space nor the freedom to quote from Miller’s work as I should like, and this short piece can’t contain a tenth of what I’d like to write about him: Miller’s a generous, energising, democratic spirit, and the free circulation of his books in England should begin at once. His readers await him here and he has much to tell them.